Two new Bainbridge art world icons have joined the star-studded pantheon of Island Treasure Award recipients, as well as a third honoree, the inaugural winner of the new related Cultural Champion Award.
Nancy Rekow and John Ellis are the 2018 Island Treasure awardees, and Sallie Maron is Bainbridge Island’s first official Cultural Champion, as confirmed by award officials earlier this month.
Conceived in 1999, the Island Treasure Award honors excellence in the arts and/or humanities and is presented annually to two individuals who have made outstanding contributions in those areas in the community at large. Candidates for the awards must have lived on Bainbridge Island for at least three years and have displayed “an ongoing commitment to their chosen field.”
Past winners have included such Bainbridge luminaries as Bob McAllister, Frank Kitamoto, Gayle Bard, David Guterson, Kristin Tollefson, Kathleen Thorne, Sally Robison, Johnpaul Jones, Janie Ekberg, John Willson, Diane Bonciolini and Gregg Mesmer, and Cameron Snow, among others.
Formerly officiated by Arts & Humanities Bainbridge (formerly the Bainbridge Island Arts & Humanities Council), the Island Treasure Award is now independent and its own organization, said award committee spokeswoman Ellen Bush.
The newly-created Cultural Champion Award will be annually bestowed upon “a person who has done so much for the cultural riches on Bainbridge Island, but is not a practitioner in the Arts and Humanities,” Bush said.
It was, award committee chairwoman Cynthia Sears said, a revelation long past due.
“We have been presenting the Island Treasures award for 19 years now, and were congratulating ourselves that we had pretty much got it right and then it suddenly dawned on us that in fact we were only two-thirds complete,” Sears said.
“In looking to celebrate and award major figures in our cultural community, we have focused on individual practitioners of the arts and the humanities — artists or writers or teachers or philosophers, and so on,” she explained. “And that is all wonderful, but how about the final third of the people who make sure that the arts and humanities flourish on our Island? These are the people who make things happen.”
This year’s award ceremony will take place at the Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network on Saturday, March 24. Call 206-842-1246 for more information.
Nancy Rekow: Natural Gifts
“Don’t stop now, the stories are just getting good!”
That was Nancy Rekow’s demand as a child, sneaking out of bed, eavesdropping on the witty and captivating stories told by her parents’ friends at parties. And it remains her battle cry today, at age 85, in her work as a renowned writing workshop leader and one of the most prolific publishers of local authors and poets around.
In the words of one nominator: “It is nearly impossible to calculate the positive impact that … Rekow has had on writers and visual artists, local and regional, dating back to the early 1970s.”
Rekow’s esteemed workshops, first begun in collaboration with Bob McAllister in 1971, continue to this day, and were described by one nominator as “a moveable feast of nurturing discussion and suggested revision in a mutually supportive atmosphere.”
Beyond the page, Rekow is a tireless organizer of poetry readings, perhaps a passion that harkens back to those late-night talks she surreptitiously sat in on. Today, her students and collaborators regularly read at more than 20 different local locales.
As co-founder of Northwest Trillium Press, along with her late husband Everett Thompson, Rekow ushered into print dozens of significant volumes, including McAllister’s “Even in the Wind, Even in the Dark,” and the beloved “Minnie Rose Lovgreen’s Recipe for Raising Chickens,” the dictated, instructional memoirs of the titular island paragon, now in its third edition, which continues to be popular with chicken aficionados around the nation.
Rekow used a tape recorder to collect the memories and advice of Lovgreen, who was at the time hospitalized and nearing the end of her life. She transcribed Lovgreen’s words by hand, eventually pairing those words with Bainbridge artist’s Elizabeth Hutchinson’s illustrations in the final version of the book.
Trillium also put out “Island of Geese and Stars,” a paired collection of poems and works of art by Bainbridge artists, six years of The Northwest Poets and Artists Calendar and two volumes of “Ars Poetica,” a yearly collaboration between Collective Visions Gallery, in Bremerton, and many regional artists and poets.
All pretty cultured stuff for a gal from rural New Jersey, right? But, then again, Rekow was never your average farmhand.
“I grew up in the deep country in New Jersey in a little town, Martinsville, but it was 30 miles from New York City,” she recalled. “So I was a country mouse and a city mouse. My parents had met in Greenwich Village during Prohibition. For two years they looked for a place to buy in the country and they finally found this place out in New Jersey, an old fruit farm.”
And, of course, Rekow was already in love with the biggest apple around.
“I had a kind of dual life,” she said, remembering frequent family trips to New York to see museums, galleries, plays, ballets and the zoo.
Her mother was artistic — “She sewed all our clothes, even our wool coats, and she made all the curtains and she upholstered furniture and did all this stuff!” — and her father, who worked for Bell Labs, a bit of a mad scientist.
“He had lots of patents and inventions,” Rekow said. “And he was always reading scientific studies and things, and very interested in why people were the way they were.”
And they were both big-time readers.
“Books were my world, books and nature,” Rekow said. “I read everything they had over and over and over.”
The oldest of four, in charge of two younger sisters and a baby brother, who died of polio when he was 6, Rekow had a hard time socially at school, having grown up without many non-familial children around.
“Inside I was shy and insecure — and I’m still kind of that way,” Rekow laughed. “But I liked planning things and figuring out which people could do what things and what they would like to do.”
She was named chairperson of the social committee regularly in high school and college, and eventually found her way to a career as an elementary school teacher, first abroad and then in Chicago. There, her love of coordinating and team-building came to the fore again, as it did later as she raised her children (on an old farm of her own, here on Bainbridge).
After taking some writing classes and finding her way to McAllister’s adult poetry/prose class, it didn’t take long for Rekow’s usual role — a special cheerleader/teacher/collaborator-type cocktail — to come shining through again.
“I was hooked,” Rekow said. “After not too long a time, when he couldn’t come to the class he’d have me teach it for him and then for years we co-taught some of the time, and then I also would teach on my own … Those poetry workshops have now been going on for 43 years.
“It wasn’t something I kind of made up my mind to do,” she added. “It just happened little by little through the workshops.
“I never anticipated that all this would happen … Things happen, and, if we’re really lucky, we follow our natural gifts and things that we care about.”
John Ellis: Imposter’s Posture
John Ellis is a character.
Actually, he’s a lot of characters.
And the idea of pretending, of faking it, is one that never leaves him — for better or worse.
“There’s so many deserving people, so many wonderful artists and creative people on the island, and I’m just very honored that people would consider me for this,” Ellis said. “All these other people are highly educated, experts in their crafts and all that, and I’m just an imposter.”
Ellis knows a bit about pretending.
He co-founded, along with his friend and longtime collaborator Frank Buxton, the beloved Bainbridge-based improv comedy group The EDGE, and has been part of the cast ever since.
Before being told he’d won, Ellis said he literally could not imagine ever being named an Island Treasure.
“When I thought about Island Treasure, I thought, ‘Well, that’s something I’ll never get. I mean, there’s no way I would ever be considered for an Island Treasure myself because I’m just an imposter. I just make stuff up, so there’s no chance that I would be considered.’” he said. “I jumped around to various colleges, so I don’t have a college degree. That was one of those things that really reinforces my imposter status. I’m uneducated, just a lucky bastard, and just faking it as I go.
“I’m still waiting for my high school guidance counselor to come out of the woods somewhere and say, ‘You didn’t get all of your credits for math. You have to finish. You have to come back to high school.’”
Pity the teacher at the other end of that nightmare scenario. Ellis, a professional improv artist, would be a masterful class clown, regardless of how nervous or unprepared he really felt. He’s had practice.
“Having an avocation as I’ve had, been blessed to be able to have, the avocation of theater pretty much anywhere I’ve lived in my life, performing and improv particularly, I’ve always felt — and I think we all do, especially when you don’t have a script in your hand and you don’t have any damn idea what you’re going to say before you come out, like you do in improv — that’s the moment when you do feel very much like, ‘I’m an imposter and I’m just going to come out and I’m not going to be able to come up with a thing and it’s all just a big joke,’” he said.
If it is a joke, though, it’s one that shows no sign of wearing thin.
The EDGE is entering its 22nd year, and Ellis’ talents are in demand on other stages as well: He’s a regular member of the Bainbridge Performing Arts cast, having recently appeared in the summertime Shakespeare production of “Merry Wives of Windsor,” as the iconic rogue Sir John Falstaff. He has also hosted the Grand Old Fourth of July parade.
Ellis is also an accomplished visual artist. His work has been displayed in a number of local venues, including BPA’s gallery and Bainbridge Arts & Crafts, and he was instrumental in the development of the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.
Recently, his work was especially central to a raven-themed show at BAC, at which he also joined the gallery’s own Alex Sanso to perform a medley of mystery tales in “Telltale Theater: An Evening of Morbid Mischief and Tales of Terror.”
“One of my ravens, somebody called a week after the show closed and said, ‘I can’t get that one raven out of my mind. Is it still available?’” Ellis recalled. “And it flew off to Michigan. That’s very satisfying.”
The exhibition “Gray Matters: All Things Elephant,” a collaborative project with his wife, was hosted by BPA, and Ellis donated all the proceeds from sales — nearly $9,000, he said — to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an elephant orphanage in Kenya.
“That was a joint venture between me and my wife,” Ellis said. “Behind every man there’s a great woman. Behind every idiot there’s a great woman, kicking him off. She really got me focused on the energy of putting that out and we had a show that was very well received.”
Additionally, Ellis founded, along with Buxton, and curates the ongoing BIMA smARTFilm program.
“[Ellis] is a constant presence in so many cultural activities on the island,” wrote one nominator. “At each showing, they introduce the film and give the audience interesting facts and things to pay special attention to while viewing and then facilitate the discussion that follows the film.”
Buxton’s recent passing cast a shade over the award announcement, Ellis said. Though he did have a chance to share his good news with his friend, himself a previous Island Treasure awardee.
“Cynthia [Sears] and I had gone to see Frank in the hospital over in East Bremerton,” Ellis said. “And on our way back she told me. It’s one of those great moments in life that will forever remain bitter and sweet.
“I’m being considered for Island Treasure because of my theater and my performing work here on Bainbridge Island, and that has a lot to do with Frank.”
And it’s true that while movie screens and gallery walls are great, and that work rewarding, Ellis said his first and best love will always be the stage.
“I’ve always been around theater since I was about 9; that’s when it all started for me,” he said.
Ellis, born in Portland, Oregon in 1953, then found his 9-year-old self reluctantly pulled early from summer camp and taken to central Oregon with his parents, as his father had a work associate who got them tickets to an outdoor Shakespeare show.
It was opening night. It was Stacey Keach as “Henry V,” and it was all over for young Ellis.
“I was just bowled over by the whole experience,” he said. “I just thought: ‘This is for me!’
“After that we had to go every summer — it wasn’t a hardship anymore, it was an insistence.”
The acting gene did not run in his family. Nor any particular love of the arts at all, Ellis said. His parents were supportive, and took him to many shows through the years, but not similarly inclined.
“My dad could draw a duck,” Ellis said. “He had this same duck he would draw every time. And he was always amazed when I was drawing and painting and all this stuff, and in the theater.”
Ellis’ own kids have found themselves likewise encouraged. His daughters are active in theater — Elizabeth Ellis is the director of education at BPA — and his son is seriously into film.
“It’s kind of a crucible of creativity around here,” Ellis laughed.
Though being named an Island Treasure gave him pause to be a bit retrospective about his life and work, Ellis said he doesn’t waste a lot of time with the idea of a legacy, the bulk of his work, improvisational and on-stage, being “more immediate.”
“It’s kind of like peeing on snow,” he said. “When you do art and when you do something creative, it sticks. If somebody comes to see an EDGE show, or comes to see the Falstaff, or comes to see some of the visual art and is inspired to do improv or theater or the monoprints or drawings, or chooses to support their community in other ways, then that’s the legacy.”
Sallie Maron: Cultural Champion
In the words of one nominator: “I believe that no one has had a more beneficial and ongoing impact on the arts, humanities, and social and political culture of modern day Bainbridge Island than Sallie Maron.”
In the words of Maron herself: “Well, that’s a little hyperbole, don’t you think?”
As a key founder of the hugely successful Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network and past chair of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Memorial Association, Maron has left a mark on island culture for a long time to come.
“Sallie has been the indispensable creator of spaces for artists to thrive and do their best work,” said one nominator. “Her trademarks are intellectual inquiry, perceptivity, boundless energy and compassion.”
Maybe so. But the key to the success of both major projects she has shepherded, Maron said, is actually just knowing how to ask for help.
“I honor everybody’s thoughts and feelings about things,” she said. “What I do is ask people for things. I ask them to share their time and their talents and their money and to come together around projects. So it’s really so much more about all the people involved, the hundreds of people over the years that have said yes. That’s what it’s really about.”
It is for those people, the countless generous and creative hands that built BARN and erected a long-overdue memorial, Maron said, that she agreed to accept the inaugural Cultural Champion Award.
“It’s a lovely honor and obviously I could only accept something like that on behalf of all the people who have made these things happen that I’ve been involved with,” she said.
Maron was, she said, “beyond surprised” to learn of her selection.
“I love bringing people together around things,” she said. “I can’t express enough gratitude for this community and what the active, caring, engaged citizenry can do here. I think Bainbridge is a place that, while you can talk about it in a lot of ways, it’s a place where people find a sense of caring and that becomes a light, not only just for Bainbridge but it really is a light that goes out to the rest of the world. Because so many people on Bainbridge are out doing good and taking that worldwide, and that’s a pretty incredible place to be.”
Maron, her husband and children first came to this particular incredible place in 1978. After having lived the childhood of a constantly-moving military brat (her father was in the Marine Corps), Maron said she was immediately attracted to Bainbridge.
“We just loved it here,” she said. “We came to Bainbridge Island and fell in love with the place and the sense of community that you just instantly feel when you come here.”
That sense of community was front-and-center when Maron was spearheading the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Memorial project.
“It was an honor to be able to do that,” she said. “So much of why people connect with the Bainbridge story especially is because there is that very inspiration element to it. It’s not just about the awful thing that happened. It’s also about a community coming together and taking a stand and saying, ‘Look, this isn’t right.’
“That is the Bainbridge story. If you see people as friends and neighbors, you can’t see them as enemies at the same time.”
Regarding the immediate success of the BARN, Maron said she has been extremely gratified to see the community race to support and experience its offerings.
“I’ve often said I think it both grounds and inspires Bainbridge,” she said. “It’s a wonderful feeling, it’s very joyful. It’s incredibly inspiring to see how excited people get around the idea of coming together through creativity and hands-on activities. That creativity just sparks from one person to the next and it creates almost a glow when people come in and realize what can be done at BARN and with each other.”
Though her work has endeavored to honor the past and build for the future — “I’ve heard a number of anecdotal sorts of things of people thinking about moving to Bainbridge because of BARN,” she said — Maron herself doesn’t spend too much time worrying about the future or dwelling on yesterday.
“I just like learning about things,” she said. “I like to learn how to do things, I like to learn how things work.
“I just enjoy what I do when I’m doing it and I’m happy to be in the present,” Maron explained. “I think if you’re happy to be in the present and you love what you’re doing everything else sort of falls into place.”